Review: Jesus Hopped the A Train (Young Vic)

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play returns to London directed by Kate Hewitt

Oberon KA Adjepong and Matthew Douglas in Jesus Hopped the A Train
Oberon KA Adjepong and Matthew Douglas in Jesus Hopped the A Train
© Johan Persson

Written in 2000, Stephen Adly Guirgis's play is about a subject rarely tackled: what it means to be good and where faith in God comes into the picture? It doesn't offer any easy answers, but it is constantly riveting as it twists and turns its way along the track.

It has only once been seen in London since its first British production at the Donmar in 2002, so it's smart of the Young Vic to revive it since its portrait of two men locked up in the high security wing of New York's Rikers Island prison seems as relevant as ever. And director Kate Hewitt's clear, powerful production offers fresh perspective on this brutal masculine world where the possibility of redemption and change is a tantalisingly difficult prospect.

Its set up is quite simple. A young Puerto Rican man, Angel Cruz (Ukweli Roach), is being prosecuted for attempted murder after he kills the leader of a religious cult that has entrapped his friend. He sees himself as innocent because he was only trying to injure the man. He is imprisoned alongside a serial killer Lucius, known as the Black Plague (Oberon KA Adjepong), once a drug-crazed murderer now a man who has found God and sees it as his mission to bring Angel to Jesus. Meanwhile, an idealistic attorney, Mary Jane Hanrahan fights what she sees as an unjust system to free Angel and the sadistic, taunting guard Valdez metes out his own kind of justice.

Out of this, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright has fashioned a series of sharp, engrossing dialogues in which the men argue about forgiveness and faith, about taking responsibility, about what constitutes a crime. Hewitt stages them on Magda Willi's sparse runway, which cuts horizontally across the space, and down which glass panels representing the doors of a cell or the high barriers on a recreation slip and slide, mirroring the men as well as separating them. It's a clever set, both open and constricting, and the sense of claustrophobia is also underlined by the crashing drums and screeching trumpets (sound design by Peter Rice) that punctuate each scene.

The conversations are knotty and difficult, the language of the street leavened by occasional moments of soaring poetry. They are sometimes melodramatic and Adly Guirgis has the habit of revealing slightly too much in half a sentence and then moving on. But Hewitt keeps everything taut and resonant as a string and the performances are utterly spot on.

Adjepong has just the right mixture of anger and righteousness to convince as a man who clings to the idea of salvation just as strongly as he fights against his own execution; Roach is brilliant at revealing the fear and the sadness beneath Angel's cocky exterior. Dervla Kirwan as the lawyer and Joplin Sibtain and Matthew Douglas as the good and bad guards bring conviction and strength to their roles.

With the structure and the conscious patterning of a morality play, Jesus Hopped the A Train is not always convincing in its arguments. But it is brave and always engrossing.